Devon Myths and Legends
Here for good or here for bad?
Things that go bump in the mines
"Knockers are the ghosts, the miners hold, of the old Jews, sir, that crucified our Lord, and were sent for slaves by the Roman emperors to work the mines" - 'Yeast' by Charles Kingsley.
When your life is spent in the dark of a mine, lit by just small lanterns that cause fear by themselves it's natural the mind will start inventing reasons for the myriad of noises that float through the air.
For Devon miners those noises were attributed to 'Knockers', small goblins that were ambiguous in their feelings towards men invading their space, doing good and bad things in equal measure.
On good days the knocks that gave the sprites their name were seen as guides, either towards an ore bearing seam or a warning of danger, akin to a rabbit thumping its back feet.
In some mining communities knockers were even rumoured to appear out of walls that contained a thick seam of coal or ore and indicate personally where the miner should dig.
That, however, only happened when they liked the miner involved, some counted themselves more loved by the goblins than others.
On their bad days though knockers were to be feared. As with most sprites and faeries of legend they could get both mischievous and malevolent.
A now-deserted Dartmoor Mine
They were often blamed for stolen candles and lost picks or clothes. They were also supposed to invade miners equipment like a poltergeist and cause it to break.
The idea of a malevolent being breaking things is always a persistent one in legends.
You can imagine a miner's pick handle breaking and him blaming the goblin, much like we blame gremlins for technical problems, even today.
According to legend it was fairly easy to get the goblins on your side. Just as faeries are appeased by a bowl of milk knockers are appeased by something a little bit more southwesterly.
Any miner wanting to befriend a knocker simply needed to leave a hunk of pasty in the mine overnight and he had a friend in his pocket.
Of course, if you take the scientific view the knocks were just air pockets or the echoes of other miners.
The broken or lost equipment was just that, unfortunate but inevitable wear and tear along with misplacing articles in a busy workplace and in the dark.
But that, as with most scientific answers, isn't as much fun. Better to believe that our miners were often helped, and sometimes hindered by small mischievous spirits, out to enjoy the humans put at their disposal.
last updated: 25/01/2008 at 12:38